Snapping Turtle juvenile resting on pond vegetation © Mia Kheyfetz
Snapping Turtle juvenile © Mia Kheyfetz

Turtles are reptiles, like snakes and lizards, but they’re more ancient than either of those groups. The first turtles appeared over 200 million years ago. Although many turtle species live in the water, all must breathe air and lay eggs on land.


All turtles have shells. Because these shells are made of modified bones like ribs, turtles can’t crawl out of them. The shell covering a turtle's body consists of a top part called the carapace, a bottom part called the plastron, and connecting parts called bridges.

Turtles have no teeth. Instead, their jaws are hard and bony with sharp edges.

Species in Massachusetts

There are 10 species of turtles in Massachusetts. They range from the tiny bog turtle, which measures 3-4” long, to the snapping turtle, which can reach up to 19” long. In addition, five sea turtles have also been found offshore, or stranded on beaches.

If you come across any turtles listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it should be photographed to confirm the identification and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program should be notified.

Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Blandings turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Found in the eastern half of the state, it has a dark body and a bright yellow throat, and grows up to 9” long. It inhabits a variety of habitat types, and eats both plants, such as duckweed and sedges, and animals, such as fish and snails.

Status: Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

bog turtle © USFWS
bog turtle © USFWS

The rarest turtle in the state, the bog turtle is under threat from habitat loss and collection for the pet trade. It’s tiny, just 3-4” long, with a bright yellow spot on either side of its head. True to its name, it lives in bogs and other wetlands. It mostly eats invertebrates such as slugs and insect larvae.

Status: Endangered under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and federally Threatened. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Diamond-backed terrapin © NOAA
Diamond-backed terrapin © NOAA

A coastal species inhabiting estuaries and mud flats, the diamond-backed terrapin grows up to 9” long, and eats snails, small crustaceans, worms, and some aquatic plants. In order to survive in salty environments, it excretes excess salt through orbital (eye) glands.

Status: Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

eastern box turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
eastern box turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Terrestrial, wandering forest floors, fields, marsh edges, and many other habitats, the eastern box turtle is primarily found in the warmer parts of the state. It eats many plant and small animal species. In the late afternoon, it builds a domelike structure from grasses or leaves—called a form—in which to spend the night.

Status: A Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Eastern musk turtle

A denizen of slow-moving water, the eastern musk turtle rarely basks and only leaves the water to lay eggs. Its diet includes mollusks, tadpoles, and aquatic insects and plants. It has a pointy face and a high-domed shell, and is also known as a stinkpot—when startled, it will emit an unpleasant odor.

Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubirentris)

northern red-bellied cooter
© Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

It’s only found in one county in Massachusetts: Plymouth County. This large turtle (up to 12” long) looks somewhat like a painted turtle, but lacks the two yellow markings behind the eyes. The plastron (lower shell) is pink in males and red in females. It prefers freshwater ponds with basking sites and aquatic vegetation, and mostly eats plants, but may occasionally consume meat, such as fish or tadpoles.

Status: Endangered federally and under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

painted turtle © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon
painted turtle © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon

It’s common throughout the state in shallow bodies of water that offer places to bask. In fact, it can spend as many as six hours a day basking in the sun! It grows up to 8” long. It has a smooth olive shell and yellow stripes on its head, with two distinctive yellow spots behind each eye. Its diet is varied and includes aquatic plants, small fish, and snails.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-eared slider
Red-eared slider © Joy Marzolf

Native to the southeastern US, this invasive species has been popular in the pet trade, and the offspring of released pets can be found all across Massachusetts—and in many parts of the world. The red-eared slider looks much like a painted turtle, but has two red marks (the “ears”) behind its head, a higher domed carapace, and a more rounded jaw. It inhabits ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams.

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

snapping turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
snapping turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Found in all sorts of water bodies, from rivers to lakes to marshes, the snapping turtle can grow up to 19” long. It has three ridges on its carapace, as well as a spiky tail. It eats many different plants and animals, and becomes more vegetarian as it ages. Snapping turtles can be aggressive and deliver a painful bite if threatened, possibly because their small lower shell (plastron) leaves them vulnerable. Give them plenty of space, and be aware that their neck can stretch the length of the shell. Never grab one by the tail—you could seriously injure the turtle.

Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

spotted turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
spotted turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Small, the spotted turtle only grows up to 4.5” long. It has a smooth dark shell with little yellow polka dots. It lives in wet meadows, marshes, bogs, small ponds, and slow-moving streams. It mostly eats animals, such as worms and frogs, but will occasionally eat plants.

Wood turtle (Clemmys insculpta)

wood turtle © Chris Ruggiero
wood turtle © Chris Ruggiero

The wood turtle spends most of its time on land. It feeds both on land and in the water, eating animals such as insects and earthworms, and plant foods such as algae and grass. It grows up to 8” long. It has a shell that resembles carved wood, and its neck and part of its legs are bright orange.

Status: A Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.

Sea Turtles

juvenile sea turtle © TurtleJournal.com
juvenile sea turtle © TurtleJournal.com

Most adult sea turtles are truly tropical or sub-tropical creatures. Yet certain species of juvenile sea turtles come north to feed along the East Coast and return south before the onset of winter. While highly unlikely, it is possible, with luck, to find five species of sea turtles in Cape Cod waters. Learn more about them and what Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is doing to save cold-stunned and stranded sea turtles.


Turtles are frequently seen basking in the sun on logs, rocks, or embankments. This behavior serves many purposes, including helping to promote muscle activity and digestion, encouraging leeches and other parasites to drop off, and triggering the production of vitamin D, which is essential for strong shells.

People often ask, “What do turtles do in the winter?” All but one of our species overwinter in mud and leaf litter in water bodies, like bottom of lakes, ponds, tidal flats, or gentle streams, and may become active during warm spells. The eastern box turtle is the exception: it burrows into loose soil or sand, or seeks shelter in old mammal holes.

Turtles have varied diets. For example, the diet of eastern box turtles includes fruit and slugs, diamond-backed terrapins will eat crustaceans and mollusks, and snapping turtles will eat plants, crayfish, and carrion (dead or decaying animal flesh).

Life Cycle

All turtles, including sea turtles, lay their eggs on land. Female turtles dig their nests in summer, typically in June or July. Some species will excavate a number of holes; these "false nests" may serve as deterrents for predators. After laying eggs in the hole and covering them with dirt, the female departs.

After two or three months, the young turtles hatch underground (though the young of some species will overwinter in the nest). The hatchlings dig their way to the surface and head for their preferred habitat. At this point they are very vulnerable, and often fall prey to skunks, raccoons, foxes, mink, bullfrogs, hawks, and other carnivores.

Situations & Solutions

Turtles often find themselves navigating developed areas—you may find a turtle crossing a busy road, or laying eggs in your yard. We can help you decide when to intervene. In most cases, turtles should be left alone, and we also discourage people from taking wild turtles as pets.

Turtles Crossing Roads

In late spring and early summer, adult female turtles cross roads in search of nest sites. Each species has a different habitat requirement, but when searching for a nest site they usually choose sandy or loose soil in lawns, tilled or mowed fields, roadsides, and occasionally backyard compost piles.

It is often assumed that something is wrong when a turtle is crossing the road. People, with best intentions, mistakenly attempt to return it to water, take it home, or, take it somewhere that seems safer and release it. But the best thing to do is leave it alone. The turtle knows where it wants to go and may have been nesting in the same spot for many years—or even decades.

If a small turtle is in danger of being hit by cars, it can be moved in the direction it was headed, to the other side of the road. Snapping turtles can be dangerous and should not be handled. They are surprisingly fast for their size and can extend their necks the length of their carapace. NEVER pick up a snapping turtle by the tail because you could seriously injure it.

Turtles Laying Eggs in Yards

Turtles that are looking to lay eggs frequently wander into yards, especially those near ponds, lakes, and rivers. These animals should not be disturbed, but can be observed from a distance.

People often ask whether they should protect a turtle’s nest with fencing. This is not an easy question to answer. Predators that seek turtle eggs are usually a natural part of the environment. If you wish, you may flag the site in order to locate it in the fall and possibly observe the hatchlings.

Wild Turtles in Captivity

A serious threat to turtle populations has been the collection of turtles as pets. By law, only two species of turtles may be taken from the wild: snapping turtles and painted turtles. However, Mass Audubon discourages people from taking any turtle from the wild for the following reasons:

  • It reduces local populations.
  • If the owner grows tired of the responsibility and releases a turtle back into the wild, the animal may not survive, depending on the age when it was captured, the length of time in captivity, and the location of its release.
  • Turtles need special care so that they don’t suffer from skin infections and shell abscesses. Improper nutrition may result in eye disease, the softening of the shell, and the loss of bone mass.

Turtles and the Law

Massachusetts law makes it illegal to possess any turtle listed on the state and/or federal endangered species list. Although it is legal to collect some turtle species, we discourage anyone from doing so. No turtles, including snapping turtles, can be caught and sold for food without a permit from the state.

If you find a turtle that is listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, take a picture to confirm the identification, and notify the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.